By Phil Stewart
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Monday Libyans needed to determine leader Muammar Gaddafi's fate for themselves and added the U.S. military's lead in operations there would soon come to an end.
Gates made the comments on the first day of a two-day visit to Russia overshadowed by Western air strikes in Libya that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin compared to "crusades."
"I think it's pretty clear to everybody that Libya would be better off without Gaddafi. But that is a matter for the Libyans themselves to decide," Gates told Interfax news agency in St. Petersburg, according to a transcript provided by his aides.
"And I think, given the opportunity and the absence of repression, they may well do that. But I think it is a mistake for us to set that (targeting Gaddafi) as a goal of our military operation."
Putin, whose country, as a veto-wielding permanent U.N. Security Council member, abstained from the vote that authorized the strikes, said Gaddafi's government was undemocratic but stressed that did not justify military action.
"The resolution is defective and flawed. It allows everything," Putin told workers at a Russian ballistic missile factory in Votkinsk in central Russia.
"It resembles medieval calls for crusades," he said.
Gates will not meet Putin, who is traveling, when he goes to Moscow for talks on Tuesday.
Instead he will meet Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who appeared to criticize Putin's remarks on Monday, saying: "In no way is it acceptable to use expressions that in essence lead to a clash of civilisations."
Medvedev defended his decision to abstain from the vote on the U.N. resolution. "We did this consciously and those were my instructions to the Foreign Ministry," he said.
A SUPPORT ROLE?
In Washington, General Carter Ham, the U.S. commander leading a multinational coalition against the Libyan leader, said three days of air and missile strikes had set the stage for a broad no-fly zone stretching across most of northern Libya.
Gates said he believed that "very soon" the U.S. military -- stretched thin by nearly a decade of war -- would be able pass command of the operation to allies.
"While we have had a major role in the first two or three days, I expect us very soon to recede back into a supporting role," Gates said.
Still, there appears to be no consensus yet about who would next lead. British Prime Minister David Cameron said the intention was to transfer command to NATO, but France said Arab countries did not want the U.S.-led military alliance in charge.
U.S. officials have suggested NATO could help run the operation without formally taking on the campaign.
Beyond Libya, Gates aims to discuss defense issues including missile defense with Medvedev and his Russian counterpart Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov in Moscow.
"We've disagreed before, and Russia still has uncertainties about (a planned European missile shield)," Gates told naval officers in St. Petersburg earlier on Monday. "However, we've mutually committed to resolving these difficulties."
Moscow says the plan could eventually weaken Russia's offensive arsenal and upset the balance of power.
(Additional reporting Alexei Anishchuk in Gorki, Russia and by Missy Ryan and David Alexander in Washington; editing by Ralph Boulton)